A Happy New Decade for Tea Workers!

Exactly half way through this last decade, the women tea workers of Munnar in South India rose up and said ‘Enough’. They demonstrated against the tea company for keeping them in poverty, against the trade unions for not representing them fairly, and against the politicians not doing anything to protect them. Many tea-pun headlines later, the world’s media concluded that this plucky group of women had “won”[i] (their 20% bonus) and moved on to fresher stories.

Meanwhile the women remain in their tiny dilapidated houses, the bonus that they fought for reverted to the earlier lower rate, their daily wage rate increased slightly but only on condition that they plucked yet more tea.

As the new decade begins, the age old problems persist. But I strongly believe that the tea industry has the power to change. The catalogue of problems that follows does not have to reflect the decade to come. But it can inform a determination to turn the industry around and adopt pricing and labour practices that invite admiration rather than criticism.

“The more things change…”

And a lot has changed in India in the 200 years since tea was first planted there. Independence. Land redistribution by the Communist governments of tea-growing states, Kerala and West Bengal. A burgeoning middle class. Soaring GDP. Yet somehow tea estate workers remain exempt from progress – kept frozen in 19th century feudalism and penury.

The pitifully low wages paid to them, the shoddiness of their housing, their lack of access to clean water and to decent healthcare has come up before.

In 1866, 1900, 1955, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019 to be precise. There are many, many other instances of these issues being raised, but these are the dates of the reports by NGOs, trade unions, the media and academic institutions that I reviewed last year for THIRST – The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea – to trace just how long the problems have persisted, with a focus on Assam.

The answer seems to be… from the very beginning.

That’s why Columbia Law School entitled their 2014 report, “The More Things Change…” referencing the epigram plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change, the more they are the same.”

 “below the poverty line” & “life-threatening malnutrition…”

Low wages reported in 1900, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019

In 1900, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Henry Cotton, wrote of tea workers there: “Not only were their lives worse than that of American Slaves but their living and working conditions were also deplorable… Their wages remained frozen at the rate of Rs 5 per month for men and Rs 4 for women established by a statute in 1865.[ii]

One hundred and eight years later SOMO said; “… malnutrition on tea estates is still a big problem which leads to all kinds of medical problems including in some cases infant death and starvation.” Two years after that, War on Want reported “The children of tea workers in Assam suffer due to their parents’ low wages and miserable living conditions, as evidenced by the high prevalence of malnutrition.” And in 2016 The Global Network on the Right To Food and Nutrition (GNRTFN) found evidence of “several malnutrition-related deaths” due to management failing to provide mandatory food rations (which are considered part of the pay package).

Columbia Law School, in 2014, raises the issue of deductions from these low wages – an issue raised by Cotton one hundred and thirteen years earlier; “In some instances only a few annas (or pence) found their way into the hands of a coolie as wages in the course of a whole year, the managers having deemed that they were justified in making deductions right and left so long as they kept their labourers in good condition like their horses and their cattle.”

Traidcraft reminds us in 2019 that; “women working on tea estates are paid significantly less than those working in other areas of agriculture, for what is difficult and skilled work.” And Oxfam reports that official recognition of tea workers’ poverty is evidenced by the fact that, shockingly, “half of households interviewed receive government ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards.”

“cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs…”

Inadequate housing reported in 1955, 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2019

Iris MacFarlane – the wife of a tea plantation manager in the 1950’s – described workers’ accommodation as “…rows of thatched hovels sharing a communal tap.” By the time War on Want reports in 2010, the situation is not much better; “Whilst housing is provided, it is of poor quality and in need of maintenance.” The theme echoes again and again through the decades; Columbia Law School in 2014; workers “live crowded together in cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs.” Traidcraft and Oxfam in 2019; “Houses are often extremely old and leaky and the management appears unwilling or unable to make the necessary repairs,” and “workers reported that leaking roofs have meant their families had to use umbrellas inside the house during the rainy season.”

“a network of cesspools…”

Lack of access to clean water and sanitation reported in 1955, 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2019

War on Want reported in 2010 that on Indian tea estates “access to safe drinking water is an acute problem,” citing a study[iii] that found “the same regrettable conditions were the norm rather than the exception.” Again, not much had changed since Iris MacFarlane saw several households sharing a single tap, and thought “No wonder the servants suffered from boils and colds.”

Further reports drip persistently through the ages: Traidcraft in 2019; “The lack of proper toilets throughout estates is a major threat to good hygiene standards”. Columbia Law School in 2014; “The failure to maintain latrines has turned some living areas into a network of cesspools…”  Oxfam in 2019; “despite doctors’ warnings they have no choice but to drink the contaminated water, so diseases such as jaundice, cholera and typhoid are common.”

“they die here very easily…”

Poor healthcare reported in 1866, 1955, 2008, 2010, 2014 and 2019

A 1866 letter from an Assam tea plantation manager with no medical training describes his approach to medical care for 450 people; “ Every morning I have to administer oil of caster to a lot of them. I have splendid receipt for spleen and have cured a lot of chaps, and dysentery too, two of them are dead but they die here very easily so they don’t think much of that.”[iv]

By 1955 there were hospitals and doctors, but Iris MacFarlane points out that “The Doctor Babu,…was trained in Bengali and didn’t speak any of the patients’ languages”. In 2008 SOMO reported that “medical care is not always adequate” although “Pesticides are often applied without proper protection,” and “Back pains, fractures from falling and respiratory illnesses are common.” War on Want echoed this in 2010. And Columbia Law School said in 2014 that “callous and inadequate medical care were cited by workers as the trigger for violent labor disputes on at least three plantations in recent years.”

So, what’s to be done…?

So what do these organisations recommend should be done about these deeply embedded problems? The plethora of suggestions boil down to a few simple recommendations for how consumers, retailers, buying companies, and plantation owners alike can take responsibility for the rights of those who make their industry possible.

  1. Pay more for tea – a price that enables workers to be paid sufficient to live a decent life.
  2. Obey the law – Whatever the failings of the Plantations Labour Act, it is the law and therefore should be obeyed. If prices are too low to enable this, see 1.
  3. Respect workers’ rights – as delineated in the Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation Conventions. If prices are too low to enable this, see 1.
  4. Be transparent – On the back of the tea packet depicting the smiling lady merrily plucking tea in the gentle sunshine, say exactly where the tea was grown so that civil society can help ensure those smiles are real.

“Not another decade without justice…”

The New Year message of Nazdeek – the organisation which has done so much to empower tea workers to fight for their legal rights – makes the plea: “Not another decade without justice.” I second that plea with all my heart. Let us not tolerate another decade of poverty for tea workers. Another decade of malnutrition. Another decade of crumbling hovels. Another decade of cholera-infested water. Another decade of work that makes you sick but provides no cure. And certainly not another two centuries – without justice for tea workers.

Let’s look forward to a decade in which tea producers are paid enough for their tea to make it possible for their workers to claim their rights to decent pay, housing, healthcare and water.

You’ll join me in drinking a cup of kindness to that, won’t you?


[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-34513824

[ii] Cotton, Henry. Indian and Home Memories. Fisher Unwin. 1910

[iii] Because of the Plantations Labour Act, the conditions found at the Indian estate directly violate Indian law. Gita Bharali, ‘TheTea Crisis, Heath Insecurity and Plantation Labourers’ Unrest’, in Society, Social Change and Sustainable Development, North Bengal University, 2007

[iv] Letters from Alick & John Carnegie (British tea estate managers), quoted in Green Gold, Alan  Iris MacFarlane, 1955. Ebury Press, (2004)

Happy Womens Day? Not just yet…

Rajeshwari with the flag of Pempila Orumai. Photo: Sabita Banerji, 2019

I’ve received lots of cheery “happy women’s day” messages today, replete with smiley emojis, pink bows and  red roses, for which – of course – I’m grateful. I wouldn’t be so churlish as to remind my kind well-wishers that the first National Woman’s Day was actually designated by the Socialist Party of America in honour of the 1908 women garment workers’ strike in New York. But you don’t mind if I remind you, do you?

Women’s Day is now International and all the way across the globe from New York, on a green hilltop in South India, right at this moment a woman called Rajeshwari is settling down for the night on the floor of her three room house, her daughter by her side. Her husband and son are asleep on the bed beside her, and her mother-in-law in the next room.

Rajeshwari’s rest is well earned. When I met her a few weeks ago, she had just bathed after a long day plucking tea – as she does six days of every week. The more she plucks the more she earns to support her family – but then, of course, the more she has to carry up those steep High Range hills. I first heard of Rajeshwari in 2015 when she and three or four other women led an uprising of women tea workers demanding better pay and conditions – which I have written about before (ad nauseam?).

Witnessing that strike – against male management, politicians and even trade unions – made  me determined to find a way to support these courageous women.  After much soul-searching, blogging, tweeting, consulting with colleagues and friends in my network of human rights and labour rights experts, I decided to set up a new organisation called THIRST – The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea.

My hope is that it will bring together the many other organisations, big and small, around the world, who have been working to improve conditions on tea plantations – where the vast majority of the workforce are women. The combined forces of trade unions, international NGOs, local campaigning organisations, academic institutions  could be a powerful force for good. All the more powerful for acting in unity.

On top of her job as a tea plucker, Rajeshwari is also General Secretary of Pempila Orumai – the women’s trade union established as a result of the strike. It means Unity of Women. And to me that is what International Women’s Day is all about.  Its about showing solidarity with women like Rajeshwari and her four thousand colleagues who had the courage to stand up for their rights. It’s about working in unity with them and for them.

So when every woman in the world is earning enough to live on – to actually live decently on, not just survive –  without having to carry back-breaking loads, when every woman is sleeping on a bed (beside her partner if she has one) and is represented by as many women trade unionists and politicians as men, and when at least half the managers in every company women work for are women – then I will cheerfully join you in sending smiley-face emojis saying Happy Women’s Day.

 

The ‘national living wage’, modern slavery reporting and women workers contesting India’s local elections- genuine change or April Fool’s jokes?

Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License.
Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License. * http://bit.ly/1REU7je

April 1st 2016 will herald a number of new beginnings. Are these serious changes for the better or just April’s Fool jokes?

To test it out, let’s create a hypothetical business; let’s call it Ye Olde Tea Shoppe in London, owned by April and employing four workers on minimum wage. Bill (25) and Bob (24) are the waiters. Mary (19) is an apprentice learning to operate the new-fangled tea urn and Tim (17) clears the tables and washes up.

April’s first new beginning: the UK’s ‘national living wage’ comes into effect

April gathers her staff and announces (through gritted teeth) “Great news. From today, I have to pay the ‘national living wage’ to everyone who’s eligible!” “Hoorah!” cry Bill, Bob, Mary and Tim, “at last we’ll have enough to live on! No more debt, no more second and third jobs!” April hands out slips explaining how much each is going to be paid from now on.

Bill (25)’s grin fades; “But its it’s only going up from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour – that’s not the living wage,” he cries. “The Living Wage Foundation has calculated that we need £9.40 – plus benefits – to live on in London!”

“But I never said I’d be paying you a living wage,” says April, “I said ‘national living wage’ which is a completely different beast. It’s set by the government without any consultation with the Living Wage Foundation.”

Bill’s demand to know why it’s called the national living wage in that case, is drowned out by a cry from Bob (24). “£7.20? But Bill and I do exactly the same job and I’m still only getting £6.70 – it’s a mistake, right?”

“No, dear,” says April, “the ‘national living wage’ only applies to people over 25. Sorry!”

“So I suppose that means l’m still going to be paid only £5.30?” grumbles Tim (17).

“And I’ll keep getting £3.30 even though I’m two years older than Tim because it’s the first year of my apprenticeship?” says Mary (19)  glumly.

“That’s right,” says April, “the rest of you stay on the old minimum wage rates. But as my total salary budget is going up by 50p an hour, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to hand over your tips. After all, if I go out of business, you’ll all be out of a job.”

“It’s an April Fool joke, isn’t it?” says Bill, to hollow laughter all round.

 

April’s second new beginning: the modern slavery act reporting requirements come into effect

The company that supplies tea to Ye Olde Tea Shoppe has a turnover of over £36 million, so it will now have to “produce a statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains” to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

The company buys its tea from another company that buys from tea auctions in India. That tea may have been grown by one of several different companies that own tea plantations all over India, or it may have been grown by individual or cooperatives of smallholders… there’s no way of telling because it all gets mixed up in the factory and at the auction house.

Amid the labyrinthine complexities of tea company ownership and influence, where suppliers may own brands and workers may appear to own shares yet remain on appallingly poor wages in shockingly bad housing, it has been suggested that companies could be colluding to ensure that auction prices are kept low… so regardless of where the tea may have been grown, the money available to pay workers is severely restricted.

Those workers are the descendants of bonded and indentured labourers who were brought to isolated tea plantations a hundred years ago. Now as then, the plantation owners provide them with housing, education, healthcare, even food rations – so they are heavily dependent on their employers. Some would call this arrangement generous company perks, others would equate it with slavery – or something very closely akin to it.

How will Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’s supplier ever manage to navigate that labyrinthine supply chain to find out what’s going on within it, let alone ” ensure there is no modern slavery” in it? Yet the statement the company provides to comply with the Modern Slavery Act will need to say more than “Sorry, it was just too hard to find out”. It will need to be truly diligent in its due diligence and find out exactly where its tea comes from. It will need to exert every ounce of its influence and insist that those it buys from don’t suppress prices so that workers’ wages and conditions get squeezed. And it will need to find ways of listening to workers themselves to find out if what they are experiencing is akin to modern slavery.

April Fool joke? Possibly. Time will tell.

 

The third new beginning: Members of a new trade union for women tea workers in Kerala, stand for local elections

Ok, I’m cheating a little on this one. The beginning is not strictly on April 1st. The process began in September last year when women who pluck the tea that ends up in Mary’s Ye Olde Tea Shoppe new-fangled urn, rose up in protest. They were protesting against their bonus being slashed, against the low wages that made them so dependent on that bonus, against their poor housing, dangerous working conditions and the failure of politicians and trade unions to prevent these abuses of their rights as workers. The women who led that uprising were Gomathi Augustin, Indrani Manikandan and Lissy Sunny. They formed Pembilla Orumai – women’s unity – but weren’t initially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as it was not yet formally constituted as a trade union. Without them at the negotiating table, they were awarded a small pay increase on condition that they pluck more tea and a promise to look at a further increase and their other demands after the elections.

Gomathi (38), Indrani (36) and Lissy (47) can now earn Rs 301 a day – about £3 (ie 30p less than apprentice Mary, the lowest paid employee at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, earns in an hour). They are asking for Rs 500 (about £5) a day.

Their members have already won a handful of seats in village level government, and in April they start contesting further seats. If they win, as their sisters won last year, their grass roots movement will have been legitimised, despite the alleged efforts of established trade union supporters to discredit, destabilise and destroy the movement. They will be formally empowered to support their fellow female workers in defending their rights to decent pay and working and living conditions.

April Fool joke? If so, the joke is on those who thought they could exploit women workers and get away with it.

*NB the photo is used purely for illustrative purposes to give a generic picture of an English tea room. The words of the blog are not connected in any way to the establishment featured in the photo.

For Britain, sorry seems to be the hardest word

22940589530_faaf663bec_kOn a chair opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seol, South Korea sits a statue. A life-sized figure of a young woman symbolizing the innocence that was violated by Japan when it forced 200,000 women from Korea and beyond to become sex slaves for their soldiers during WWII.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has just offered his “most sincere apologies” on behalf of his country and agreed to pay into a fund to support the survivors of the atrocity. He is now hoping that the statue – a source of great embarrassment to his country – will be removed.

Meanwhile, the British establishment is huffing and puffing at student calls for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College, Oxford, on the grounds that it perpetuates a colonialist, Eurocentric view of the world. Or, to use the words of a Radio 4 Any Questions listener, because he was a “vicious, exploitative racist”.

Should countries apologise and pay reparations for the sins of their forebears like Japan has just done? Or should they shrug and leave tributes to their Empire-makers standing as proud testaments to their history, warts and all?

While Any Questions panellist Bernard Jenkins said if we start taking down statues of unpleasant people from our history “where will it end?!”, Labour MP, Kate Hoey, dismissed the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, calling the University “pathetic” for seriously considering the students’ calls. “I was a student demonstrator over apartheid,” she said,  “I was involved in all sorts of sit-ins… and when I look back I wonder what on earth we sat in for because I don’t think we actually got anything.” More troubling than the apparent shallowness of her convictions that this comment reveals, is the brushing over of the important role that international support did play in ending apartheid.

There are worse legacies of the British Empire than statues. The tea plantations of the Indian sub-continent, for example, where historic hierarchies and exploitative practices have been preserved and hardened. While statues may cause offence, these tea plantations continue to cause suffering to living human beings by paying poverty wages – lower than the national minimum wage – and providing substandard benefits for hard and dangerous physical work.

Despite Cecil Rhodes’ contention that “we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race,” there is no escaping the fact that economic exploitation was in fact the Empire’s primary aim, with the betterment of the human race as a nice bonus thrown in. Brits may or may not have done their exploiting in a more gentlemanly manner than other colonisers, but exploit they did. As Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, said when he apologised for London’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, “You can look across [towards the financial district] to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery”. And every time we buy a cheap pack of tea bags we are benefiting from the exploitation of tea workers.

So let us by all means debate whether the statues of vicious, exploitative racist Empire builders should remain standing, but in the meantime, let us call for the dismantling of the living monuments to human exploitation our forebears set up in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

And once it has ended, let us have the courage and decency to apologise for it, as Japan has done for the exploitation of those Korean women. Or like the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, did when he expressed “sincere regret” for the British torture and abuse of Kenyans in the 1950s. Or as Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia did in 2008 for the “profound grief, suffering and loss” it had inflicted on Australia’s aboriginal people, or then Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in the same year to Canada’s aboriginal peoples for the abuses they suffered at the residential schools they were forced to attend.

Ken Livingstone ended his speech with the words “Slavery was not abolished as an act of good will by the slave owners, it was defeated by the resistance of the slaves.” The resistance of India’s tea plantation workers is in its infancy and needs our support. If student protests played even the smallest role in helping to end apartheid, perhaps they – and the rest of us – can also play a part in helping to end the continued exploitation of millions of tea plantation workers.